Skip to main content

Back to School AMA: What PC Should You Get?

With school starting soon, both for college students and in many public schools, it's time to start thinking about your tech. Whether you're a parent buying your 6th grader their first computer or an incoming freshmen headed to university, you need to find the right PC and accessories. 

But just what should you buy? Should freshmen build your own custom desktop for the dorm or grab a lightweight laptop to bring to class? Should parents go for a low-cost Chromebook or get their teenagers a more full-fledged Windows or Mac-based computer?

The answer to all these questions is: it depends on your needs and budget. To help you make the right back-to-school tech decisions, Tom's Hardware Editor-in-Chief will be staffing the forums,  answering your questions. 

Just comment in the thread below and ask us anything you want about student PCs, helpful peripherals and whatever else you want to know. Our AMA starts now and will run until August 8th. We hope to see you there!

  • apiltch
    I'll be here answering your questions for the next 24 hours. We can talk about laptops vs desktops for school, what type of PC you need and what peripherals you need.
    Reply
  • TheDaveGuy
    Looking for advice on a laptop for a high school freshman, planned or desired uses include:

    Basic word processing, most likely google docs or microsoft word
    Light to moderate art / graphic design

    Also suggestion for a budding artist to explore working with digital media. I have started looking at graphics tablets, but not sure what would be a good starting one.

    Thank you!
    Reply
  • apiltch
    So, if you're planning to do any kind of graphic design or even light photo editing, do not get a chromebook. Chromebooks are popular with schools, because they are cheap and durable, but they are limited.

    So, if you can spend at least $800, I recommend a lightweight Ultrabook such as the Asus Zenbook, HP Envy 13t or Dell XPS 13. If you want a 2-in-1 (better for sketching), consider the HP Spectre x360.
    Reply
  • bigdragon
    TheDaveGuy said:
    Also suggestion for a budding artist to explore working with digital media. I have started looking at graphics tablets, but not sure what would be a good starting one.
    Digital artist here. Look for 2-in-1 devices that feature a Wacom AES digitizer. I believe that Dell and Lenovo use Wacom AES. I have some XPS 15 2-in-1s at the office and a Yoga 720 at home -- both feature Wacom AES. The tracking performance, pressure sensitivity, and feel of the Wacom devices beats the competition (personal experience).

    You could also consider Microsoft's Surface Pro. NTrig is almost as good as Wacom now, especially when paired with art programs that do line-smoothing to cut out the stair-stepping effect (e.g. Clip Studio Paint). I would advise against the HP models as they use an Elan digitizer. Elan has too high of initial activation force, has a narrow pressure range (feel, not levels), and does not work well with non-HP/Elan pens. I hate the drawing experience on the HP Envy x360 15.

    Don't overlook Apple's iPad Pro and Apple Pencil either -- good options if the goal is digital art.
    Reply
  • kasid
    I'm currently looking to buy a very cheap and very lightweight laptop (needs to be a full-fledged Windows device since it's for education and I need to run applications like Database servers, Matlab and GMS3). I already have a desktop at home for heavier workloads. I do not mind a small screen, rather I consider it an advantage for the added portability. I have this -
    ?rel=ugc]https://www.asus.com/bd/Laptops/ASUS-Laptop-E203MAH/specifications/in mind to be suitable for my criteria. I'm thinking that I would buy the Intel® Pentium® Silver N5000 variant and also swap the HDD for an 240GB SSD. Any suggestions or feedback would be welcome from the experts.
    Reply
  • apiltch
    That seems like a decent idea, but if possible, I would try to find a model that has a 1080p screen so you can fit more content on the screen at once.
    Reply
  • Shauryya
    I am an international student in the states and a senior in mechanical engineering and am at my wits end.
    I currently have an Aorus X5 V6, with a GTX 1070 and i7-6820HK but the machine is faulty. The GPU has cut out and now I have a barely functioning machine. This machine was supposed to be an investment in my future but the way things have turned out have really disappointed me.

    I am actively looking towards getting a good machine that has comparable performance, if not better, and customer care for laptops better than Gigabyte/Aorus, at a budget pricepoint of say $1300-1600/1700

    What I want is good battery life, lightweight and cool under all use-cases except gaming, a good keyboard that is not mushy to type on and does not have a shallow travel (not especially important) and a good trackpad.

    I would prefer an RTX card but if old hardware is the way to go, then I have no qualms.

    I also get flash urges of a macbook since I have an iPhone and the facilities of having the same streamlined ecosystem without any clutter does sway me that way from time to time.

    I would like to run modern games at an acceptable level and previous gen games at max settings, for example COD4, Battlefield 4, etc at max settings and FPS but games like Siege at 80+FPS and Anthem (I know, I know) at ~40-50 FPS at 1080P

    I will also run a lot of computationally intensive softwares and codes on MATLAB, Autocad and Solidworks for my design project and classes so need something that can help me out in a jiffy


    Another option that I eye is getting a dedicated gaming/processing rig and then remoting in into the machine from a cheap rugged laptop that has that capability.

    Please help me with this

    P.s. if you would suggest that I wait because of new releases on the horizon, then I can do that too
    Reply
  • EweG
    Hello. I'm new. I would like to have some tips for buying an ideal Laptop for my third year in computer engineering. I'm also in my spare time a gamer more focused on mmorpg and FPS like COD black ops 3.
    For the rest, 3D editing for example, I'm not very demanding. My budget is between $800-$1100.
    Indeed I live in Africa, where the temperature regularly exceeds 30 degrees.
    Thanks in advance.
    Reply
  • apiltch
    Good battery life and great graphics don't normally go together because, even when not in active use, high-end mobile GPUs gulp power. The most portable discrete-GPU laptops I can think of are the Dell XPS 15 and HP Spectre x360 15-inch, but neither of these is powerful enough to play high-end games at high settings and frame rates.

    So you have to choose. If you want a powerful laptop with so-so battery life such as the MSI GE65 Raider or Alienware m15 (the optional OLED screen is the most beautiful I've ever seen). However, your idea of building a powerful desktop and then remoting into it with a lightweight laptop definitely works if you can afford it. In that case, I recommend a super lightweight laptop like the Asus ZenBook series, HP Envy 13, Dell XPS 13 or ThinkPad X1 Carbon.

    Shauryya said:
    I am an international student in the states and a senior in mechanical engineering and am at my wits end.
    I currently have an Aorus X5 V6, with a GTX 1070 and i7-6820HK but the machine is faulty. The GPU has cut out and now I have a barely functioning machine. This machine was supposed to be an investment in my future but the way things have turned out have really disappointed me.

    I am actively looking towards getting a good machine that has comparable performance, if not better, and customer care for laptops better than Gigabyte/Aorus, at a budget pricepoint of say $1300-1600/1700

    What I want is good battery life, lightweight and cool under all use-cases except gaming, a good keyboard that is not mushy to type on and does not have a shallow travel (not especially important) and a good trackpad.

    I would prefer an RTX card but if old hardware is the way to go, then I have no qualms.

    I also get flash urges of a macbook since I have an iPhone and the facilities of having the same streamlined ecosystem without any clutter does sway me that way from time to time.

    I would like to run modern games at an acceptable level and previous gen games at max settings, for example COD4, Battlefield 4, etc at max settings and FPS but games like Siege at 80+FPS and Anthem (I know, I know) at ~40-50 FPS at 1080P

    I will also run a lot of computationally intensive softwares and codes on MATLAB, Autocad and Solidworks for my design project and classes so need something that can help me out in a jiffy


    Another option that I eye is getting a dedicated gaming/processing rig and then remoting in into the machine from a cheap rugged laptop that has that capability.

    Please help me with this

    P.s. if you would suggest that I wait because of new releases on the horizon, then I can do that too
    Reply
  • apiltch
    So it sounds like what you need is a 15-inch gaming laptop with a GTX 1050 or 1650 card. Here in the U.S., Dell's G5 and G7 laptops are a great deal and you can get one in that price range. You'd obviously need to check what's a good price in your local market, but in addition to Dell, both MSI and Asus often have slightly older models with those specs selling for under $1k.


    EweG said:
    Hello. I'm new. I would like to have some tips for buying an ideal Laptop for my third year in computer engineering. I'm also in my spare time a gamer more focused on mmorpg and FPS like COD black ops 3.
    For the rest, 3D editing for example, I'm not very demanding. My budget is between $800-$1100.
    Indeed I live in Africa, where the temperature regularly exceeds 30 degrees.
    Thanks in advance.
    Reply